This is the 12th post in my newly resurrected series of vintage generation ship short fiction reviews. Today I have something a bit different — a 1970s commentary on the subgenre. While the story itself is not a generation ship tale as it takes place on Earth, it fits and critiques the theme from within a similar enclosed environment.
As a reminder for anyone stopping by, all of the stories I’ll review in the series are available online via the link below in the review.
You are welcome to read and discuss along with me as I explore humanity’s visions of generational voyage. And thanks go out to all who have joined already. I also have compiled an extensive index of generation ship SF if you wish to track down my earlier reviews on the topic and any that you might want to read on your own.
Michael G. Coney’s “The Mind Prison” first appeared in New Writings in SF 19, ed. John Carnell (1971). 3.5/5 (Good). You can read it online here. I read it Coney’s collection Monitor Found in Orbit (1974).
Coney positions “The Mind Prison”, in the introduction to his collection Monitor Found in Orbit, as a commentary on generation ship stories–in particular Robert A. Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky (serialized 1941) and Brian W. Aldiss’ Non-Stop (variant title: Starship) (1959) which he read and reread over the years. He writes: “I cannot explain why I find the closed environment story so fascinating [..] Why should an adventure story be more exciting, merely because the people therein are not subject to external influences?” (114). Coney emphasizes the centrality of male heroism in many of these stories: “I would rather think that these stories emphasize identification, since the hero is invariably the only normal person around, surrounded by nonsensical religions, illogical facts, widely held misconception, which only he [emphasis Coney’s] can see the stupidity of” (114). “The Mind Prison” explores an enclosed environment remarkably similar to a generation ship, with a female heroine.
The “gray concrete towers” of Festive, as if a fantastic permutation of Hashima Island in Japan, looms above the ocean (114). Originally a fallout shelter built to preserve its inhabitants from a nuclear war, Festive grows both upward and downward. Each new chamber is sealed off from the “poisonous air by men working in suits supplied with oxygen” created by a “vast complex of machinery humming beneath the sea” (114). The elderly Jeremiah, masked in an airlock from the poisonous exterior, flies mechanical pigeons–“an education pastime for all ages,” the box reads, “perfect replicas of birds now found only in remote Antarctica” (118). Jillie spends time with Jeremiah who shares his wisdom about the nature of the world. She wants to marry David, a political radical of the Stabilization Party (against population growth), but her advances are rebuffed. She sets off towards the interior of Festive to learn its innermost secrets.
Expanding on Aldiss’ argument in Non-Stop that “a community that cannot or will not realize how insignificant a part of the universe it occupies is not truly civilized,” Coney posits an unusual gender commentary throughout the tale in which men maintain a false illusion of reality. Women, increasingly possessed by primordial urges to repopulate the world, gravitate towards the upper reaches of Festive, closer to the supposedly radiation laden outside (125). Men, obsessed with stabilization and order, retreat to the bowels of the world, away from women, away from sexual temptation, away from the outside and all its supposed horrors. In their hellish interior they run amok, paranoid and possessed by an unknown animalistic urge, mowed down by the scythed agricultural machines that maintain vast hydroponic facilities.
But, as with all enclosed environment stories, there will be a conceptual breakthrough. And in Coney’s vision women will be responsible for it. And the heroine Jillie, with the wisdom and assistance of Jeremiah, will drag David, kicking and screaming desperate for the lower levels, along with her into a new world.
Recommended for the fascinating location of Festive and Coney’s reworking of gender roles. The narrative works but, unlike some of the more ingenious formulations of the generation ship idea that I have encountered in this series, “The Mind Prison” reads as a bare-bones distillation of the theme.
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